One of the pleasures of being a (very) minor public figure associated with science is that sometimes I hear from people who have “disproved” major findings. In my earlier, more self-assured days I called these folks “cranks” – as in “Mathematical Cranks,” the brilliant book by Underwood Dudley looking at the math world’s examples – but I have mellowed. Now I think of them as “overenthusiastic amateurs”.
I received a good example of this a few days ago by email (not as much fun as a written letter, but such is life) titled “THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM – IN THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH”. It is, in many ways, a classic of the genre, to wit:
- The writer is old and has been a science fan for much of his (they’re always male) life: “During the past seven decades, I have enjoyed the intellectual riches brought about by the pursuit of Natural Philosophy (also known as Theoretical or Mathematical Physics) as an avocation.”
- The writing is flowery but good, aside from a slight excess of capital letters (“the Laws of Nature”, the “World of Physics”)
- “A Pulitzer Prize will result for the reporter/journalist who takes on this challenging quest and pursues it to its implied outcome”. Every such letter that I’ve gotten over the years mentions the Pulitzer Prize.
- It aims very high: ” The resulting exposition produced a fatal (and as yet unrefuted) mathematical inconsistency in the well-known Lorentz Contraction. … I began to examine the developmental and foundational writings of Special Relativity and found other inconsistencies which caused me to doubt the tenability of the theory as a whole. This, of course, nullifies the legitimacy of the concept of the storied Space/Time Continuum. … I have easily explained a few of today’s mysteries, eg., the acceleration (apparent) of distant galaxies, the rotational inconsistencies of galaxies and the inexplicable energies of cosmic particles. (Note that use of “easily”! Also note the use of “unrefuted” in the first sentence – every overenthusiastic amateur proudly says that nobody has proved their statement wrong, although they don’t point out that their work is so ridiculous that nobody has bothered to look at it. )
The key point in all this shows up near the end: “During this Age of Special Relativity, even though possessed of tremendous computational power, we have seen no advances in “Real World” theoretical Physics since the contributions of Isaac Newton and Clerk Maxwell.”
Overenthusiastic amateurs always want to return to classical physics, the world of inclined planes and simple calculus that they learned in their youth. None of this probabilistic quantum stuff or non-intuitive relativistic time dilation for them, thank you very much. The world should be as we see it out the window – if that requires disproving Einstein and Planck, then that’s what they’ll do!
I have received half a dozen missives like this in my career – I bet they arrive daily at the N.Y. Times’ science desk. Most have been physics; one was math, disproving Cantor’s Continuum Hypothesis as part of throwing out the concept of infinity (another non-intuitive concept that offends the overenthusiastic amateur). None involved chemistry – I’m not sure what they woudl do; disprove the periodic table? – and as for biology, the amateurs there are all anti-evolutionists.